Inside the mind of Machiavelli: The early writings that foretold a revolution

Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the most important thinkers of his time. Here's where he got his start

Published March 1, 2015 10:30PM (EST)

Sculpture of Niccolo Macchiavelli, Uffizi Colonnade, Florence.          (<a href=''>wjarek</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Sculpture of Niccolo Macchiavelli, Uffizi Colonnade, Florence. (wjarek via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from “Machiavelli: A Portrait”

Clues concerning Machiavelli’s thinking as to his own immediate personal path lie in one of the Italian Renaissance’s most beautiful—and in some ways most deceiving—letters, which he wrote to his friend Vettori on December 10, 1513. There had been a brief interruption in their correspondence, one that left Machiavelli concerned. But upon receiving Vettori’s latest letter Machiavelli is “most pleased,” he says, and since he has no news to report resolves to send Vettori an account of what his life in exile is like. “I am on my farm, and I haven’t been in Florence for more than twenty days, total, since my recent problems.” Machiavelli spent about a month hunting thrushes—“two at least, at most six”—each day. After this diversion ended, Machiavelli settled into a routine: “In the mornings I rise with the sun, and I go to one of my woods that I am having cleared, where I stay for two hours to look over the work done the day before and to spend some time with the woodsmen. They are always in the middle of some argument, either among themselves or with the neighbors.” Machiavelli mixes and mingles with people of all classes, even as he listens to and participates in arguments. This fact was probably unsurprising to Vettori, knowing his friend as he did, even as it might seem surprising to connoisseurs of “high” literature.

“After I leave the woods, I go to a spring, and thereafter to a place where I hang my bird nets. I have a book with me— Dante, or Petrarch, or a minor poet, like Tibullus, Ovid, or other ones of that sort. I read about their romantic passions, their love affairs, and I remember my own, taking pleasure for a while in those thoughts.” From the social to the solitary: this seems to be the second phase of his day, where repeated reading of a light classic, something that he already has read many times but to which he willingly returns, allows him to reflect on his own life. After this diversion and care of the soul comes more interactivity: “Then I take to the road, on the way to the inn. I chat with people who pass by, ask them about the news where they live, learning this and that, and I take note of the diverse taste and imaginings of men.” Machiavelli’s curiosity and, again, his proto-anthropological sensibility, is on display here.

A meal follows—“whatever there is to eat that this poor farm and my tiny means afford me”—and then he returns to the inn, where he finds “the innkeeper, normally, a butcher, a miller, and a couple of kiln-workers. I bum around with them for the rest of the day,” playing cards and backgammon and, again, arguing: “these games lead to a thousand disagreements and endless insults.” We sense a Machiavelli at home in different environments, who needs the give and take of vigorous human interaction.

There then follows the letter’s best known part, Machiavelli’s account of the conclusion of his day:

Once the evening has arrived, I come home and enter my study. In the entryway I take off my daytime clothing, covered with mud and dirt, and I put on garments that are royal, and suitable for a court. Changed into suitable clothes, I step into the ancient courts of ancient men. Received lovingly by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine, for which I was born. There I am unashamed to talk with them and ask them the reasons for their actions, and they, with their humanity, answer me. For four hours I feel no boredom, I forget all worries, I do not fear poverty, and am not dismayed by death. I give myself to them entirely.

Every line of this description is important. Machiavelli tells us he enters his “study”—his scrittoio—which, for those people who wrote and read in the Renaissance, was a kind of sacred space, where you received your most intimate friends in a space adorned with the books, art, and objects that meant the most to you. These Renaissance studies represented a place of private contemplation in a world where privacy was not easy to find. So Machiavelli’s deliberate foregrounding of his study tells Vettori—and his readers—that what he does there takes on a particular, and personal, importance.

Furthermore, though as we shall see Machiavelli makes no absolute statements in any of his works as to the best form of government—that is, whether a republic or monarchy is best, and so on—here, in the realm of literature and history, among his beloved ancients, he is among royalty and, he says, he must dress the part: “I put on garments that are royal, and suitable for a court,” so that he can “step into the ancient courts of ancient men.” The ancients receive him “lovingly,” and Machiavelli says: “I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine, for which I was born.” The expression translated here as “nourish myself ”—mi pasco—can be translated more literally in Italian as “I graze.” Machiavelli is suggesting, in other words, that for him reading the ancients is something purely and totally natural—“the food for which I was born.” Then, “I am unashamed to talk with them.” This is a realm where there are none of the hierarchies of wealth and privilege that, in the real workaday world of politics, inevitably manifest themselves.

When he asks the ancients the reasons for their actions, “they, with their humanity, answer me.” This word, “humanity,” sends another important signal. The Italian word—umanità— recalls the Latin in which Machiavelli was practically bathed as a young student and specifically the word humanitas, which in its ancient resonances (which Machiavelli well knew) signified more than an attribute distinguishing a human being from an animal. As Aulus Gellius (an ancient author much loved in the Renaissance) put it, “humanity” meant “something like what the Greeks call paideia, and what we mean when we speak of education and initiation into the liberal arts. . . . Cultivation and learning in this type of knowledge has been given to man alone from among all animate beings and is therefore called ‘humanity.’ ” Learning, and specifically learning in the liberal arts, gave one the quality of humanitas, and for Machiavelli it is this precise quality that the ancient authors he loves so well possess.

Then there emerges the letter’s most tantalizing moment, one that is again worthy of extended citation:

Because Dante says that one does not possess knowledge without retaining what one has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation, and I have composed a short work De principatibus, where, in so far as I can, I delve in and do some thinking about this subject, discoursing on what a princedom is, what sorts of princedoms there are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, and why they are lost. And if ever any of my musings have pleased you, this one, I think, will not incur your displeasure. And it should be received by a prince and especially by a new prince; but I dedicate it to the Magnificence of Giuliano [de’ Medici]. Filippo Casavecchia has seen it, and he can inform you, at least in part, about the thing itself and about the thoughts I have shared about it with him, even as I continually enlarge and polish it.

Machiavelli begins the paragraph with a Dantean commonplace, one that would be familiar to Vettori, drawn from Dante’s "Paradiso," the third book of the "Divine Comedy" (following the "Inferno" and the "Purgatorio"). There Dante’s beloved Beatrice is speaking to him, explaining to Dante what vows mean: “Open your mind to what I am clarifying for you, and fix it in your memory, since one does not possess knowledge without retaining what one has understood.” While Beatrice urges Dante to fix in his memory what she is saying, Machiavelli indicates that he has written down his thoughts On Princedoms, using the Latin De principatibus, instead of Tuscan. And he gives Vettori a taste of what the treatise is like, but only a taste, mentioning a few things he will treat there.

Machiavelli manifests a modest confidence in his work (“if ever any of my musings have pleased you”), and he also shows that he is still, though in the country, hoping to come back into the city, into the theater of politics. Between the time that this letter was written and the final composition of
"The Prince"—for this is the treatise he is talking about—the dedicatee would change. But like many figures in the Renaissance, Machiavelli understood that, to succeed, he would need a patron, and he was using all his cunning to figure out to whom he might dedicate this work. He also indicates that he has shared his work with a friend and ally close to home, Filippo Casavecchia, also known to Vettori.

One more aspect comes into relief, something that tells us why this famous letter can be deceiving to modern ears. The contents summary Machiavelli gives here (“what a princedom is,” and so on) covers more or less the contents of the first eleven of the twenty-six chapters in "The Prince." And at the end Machiavelli says that he is continually “enlarging and polishing” his work. These comments have attracted scholars’ attention, since they can help in studying the history of the composition of "The Prince," a worthy goal (some have suggested, for example, that "The Prince" was composed in two distinct phases, with this letter marking the completion of phase one). But they are also important for another reason.

The most striking passage of this letter occurs when Machiavelli tells of that phase of the day, the evening, when he enters his study, changing his clothes to enter into “conversation,” as he terms it, with the ancients. The picture drawn is of a solitary

intellectual, who, though he might earlier in the day have joked and debated with others, was totally alone when it came to the reading and writing that led to "The Prince" and his other works. And it is certainly true that for much of the time he was indeed alone, away from the city that he loved, and secluded in his study. It is an appealing image, one that could almost come out of the nineteenth century, when a Romantic, brooding author would, notionally, toil alone and present his finished work to the world when he had completed it to his satisfaction. But this famous passage should be read together with the last passage cited, in which Machiavelli mentions both sharing his work with a friend and the fact that he is continually working on it.

Despite all the work Machiavelli did alone, the way authorship and “publishing” worked was different then. Machiavelli’s creative process was more social than the romantic image implies. The goal was not to publish widely in the way we understand that term today, where one can imagine a unitary work, finished, with the possibility of publishing thousands of exactly identical copies, if not more. Printing with moveable type then was still new enough that it functioned in people’s imaginations as a kind of accelerated way of producing manuscripts (hand-written texts). Also, because printing was an art that still operated by hand (rather than with the steam-powered presses of the early nineteenth century), one simply could not imagine, in the way an aspiring author can do today, what it might mean to have massive numbers of copies circulating worldwide. "The Prince," in fact, was never printed during Machiavelli’s lifetime, even though he would have had every chance to do so. He had print-published his first "Decennale" in 1506, so we know he was familiar with what it took to get things published in print.

But for Machiavelli, “publishing” meant “making public,” and it meant doing so to his most important audience: those whom he considered close enough friends and intellectual colleagues that they could both engage in intelligent discussion with him about what he wrote and who, also, could help his work find the audience he desired through their networks. In this case, Machiavelli sincerely hoped that "The Prince" would help him find a job with the new Florentine regime or, if not there, then in Rome at the papal court, now that a Florentine was pope. In other cases, his imagined audience was different, as were his aims in writing. Yet in almost all instances the local environment played an important part. Machiavelli was not a Romantic author thinking universal thoughts in systematic ways, nor was he a political science professor propounding a unified political theory. Deeply sensitive to history and to the way fortune inflected human decisions, Machiavelli was a thinker whose most profound insights came when he documented and commented on change and instability. There is no better work in which to see these tendencies than in his undisputed masterpiece, "The Prince."

Excerpted from “Machiavelli: A Portrait” by Christopher S. Celenza. Copyright © 2014 by Christopher S. Celenza. Reprinted by arrangement with Harvard University Press, a division of Harvard University. All rights reserved.

By Christopher S. Celenza

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